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Dan Sinykin, "Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature" (New York: Columbia UP, 2023), 328 pp. Literature Now.:


Dan Sinykin, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature (New York: Columbia UP, 2023), 328 pp. Literature Now.

It seems almost superfluous to review Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, because it has already received much more attention than the average “book of literary history” (Sinykin 19), including extensive reviews in The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and The Atlantic, to name but a few. It certainly was 2023’s “most buzzed-about work of literary scholarship” (Lambert), which poses its own set of challenges regarding (intended) audience, style, and voice.

Despite the buzz and attention, the book is firmly located in a scholarly publishing context. Columbia University Press’s series “Literature Now” assembles forward-thinking literary studies scholarship, and Dan Sinykin’s book is certainly well placed here alongside recent books by Jessica Pressman and Jeremy Rosen. The book poses urgent questions about how literary history is made and how publishing and book trade history are interconnected.

Sinykin’s introduction begins with a “hook”—the story of André Schiffrin’s firing from Random House in 1990, a story that has been told and retold in publishing circles. For many, this story epitomizes the seismic shift from the “gentleman publisher” to the “conglomerate era,” though the shifts started decades earlier, in the 1960s. Sinykin’s core argument is that these developments in the industry have had a profound impact on the literature that is produced, sold, and read today. Taking Schiffrin’s story as a starting point, and coming back to it every now and then, Sinykin develops his six chapters, which focus on the mass market (ch. 1 and 2), the book trade (ch. 3 and 4), nonprofit publishing (ch. 5), and independent publishing (ch. 6). Throughout, Sinykin deftly interweaves archival finds with trade journal sources and interviews with a focus on narrating them engagingly.

Chapters 1 and 2, titled “Mass Market (I)” and “Mass Market (II),” cover topics as widespread as the success of paperback books, the lack of research on literary agents, the creation of Danielle Steel’s brand, and shifts in literary prize culture. “Mass Market (I)” contains a case study of E. L. Doctorow from his readerly beginnings at age eight to his publishing career and especially of his novel Ragtime. Sinykin stresses that he is “not telling the familiar story of a rise and fall. […] [T]his is not a tale about a Golden Age ransacked by barbarians”; instead, Sinykin says, it is “a tale of transformation” in the literary scene (34).

Chapters 3 and 4, titled “Trade (I)” and “Trade (II),” also discuss a wide range of developments through publishing anecdotes and through the fascinating biographies of authors and industry personalities such as Jason Epstein, often credited with inventing the trade paperback. In particular, “Trade (I)”—subtitled “How Women Resisted Sexism and Reinvented the Novel”—considers the hostile environment for women working in publishing and for women writers, arguing that autofiction grew out of women writers searching for an acceptable literary form beyond the children’s literature and romance genres in which they were expected to write. This part of chapter 3 is highly relevant, but one does wonder whether the industry’s overall lack of diversity could have been reflected more fully throughout the book. Recent work from book studies and publishing studies could also have been referenced here, such as Claire Parnell et al.’s work on sexism in the industry (2020).

“Trade (II)”—subtitled “How Literary Writers Embraced Genre”—is a particularly rich chapter, emphasizing Sinykin’s argument that the industry went through “a dispersal of power out of the hands of the author and the editor and into a great many hands” (103) and focusing on Stephen King, Toni Morrison (as editor and author), Joan Didion, Cormac McCarthy, and Michael Crichton as vivid and compelling case studies. The McCarthy story will ring familiar to many from a June 2023 piece by Sinykin in the New York Times; McCarthy’s development from “densely lyrical, difficult, and gothic” (117) (and sales under 2,500 copies) to “model literary genre fiction” (121) (selling hundreds of thousands of copies and getting endorsed by Oprah) is embedded firmly within the story of conglomeration. The chapter highlights the role of editors in making bestsellers, but Sinykin also makes visible other actors involved in co-creating the big books of the period: the typists and assistants. For instance, Sinykin was able to speak to Dr. Beverly Haviland, Jason Epstein’s assistant in the 1980s at Random House, who copy-edited, wrote blurbs and flap copy, and contributed to the success of Epstein’s books in numerous other ways.

The next two chapters are interconnected as well, though they differ in title. Chapter 5—“Nonprofits: How Rebels Found Funding and Rejected New York”—and chapter 6—“Independents: How W. W. Norton Stayed Free and Housed the Misfits”—both discuss institutions that gatekeep and curate differently than the conglomerate publishers discussed before. However, the point of reference is the conglomerate logic. Hilary Plum, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, shared her frustration with Sinykin’s focus as an independently-published author and as someone who works for a small press that is associated with a university (the Cleveland State University’s Poetry Center) and co-hosts a podcast about small press publishing (“Index for Continuance”), asking why Sinykin had sidelined small presses in his book: “Why is it always easier to pitch a book—even to an independent or academic publisher—about the problems with corporate cultural dominance than to pitch a book about all the culture that is hardily, imperfectly, collaboratively, weirdly resisting corporate dominance?” However, as a scholar of twentieth- and twenty-first century publishing and book history, I can understand the draw of the “Big 5” (and its big players) that Sinykin succumbs to, and recognize it in my own work.

In his conclusion, Sinykin comes back to Penguin Random House once more, underlining its role as the world’s major trade publisher and emphasizing that this is “more the conglomerate era than ever” (211). He also offers vignettes of developments that did not fit into his book, including self-publishing, social media, and ebooks, all of which are highly relevant. Here, Sinykin could have bolstered his notes with references to publishing studies works which have recently engaged with these larger issues, such as (but not limited to) Bronwen Thomas’ Literature and Social Media (2020) and Kim Wilkins et al.’s recent Genre Worlds (2023). Although Sinykin’s prose is sometimes more reminiscent of the genre fiction he analyzes than of the literary criticism he offers, the book itself, in particular the vibrant biographical sketches of “book people” and the overarching engaging narrative about conglomeration and its complicated effects lead me to recommend it for scholars in American Studies who want to start thinking about the history of publishing and its relationship to the books they study. Sinykin’s book has already captured the attention of a wide readership in academia and beyond, and certainly merits further discussion.

Corinna Norrick-Rühl (Universität Münster)

Works Cited

1 

Lambert, Josh. “The Invisible Forces Behind the Books We Read.” The Atlantic 18 Dec. 2023. Web. 1 Mar. 2024. https://www.theatlantic.com/books/archive/2023/12/big-fiction-dan-sinykin-publishing/676389/.

2 

Parnell, Claire, Alexandra Dane, and Millicent Weber. “Author Care and the Invisibility of Affective Labour: Publicists’ Role in Book Publishing.” Publishing Research Quarterly 36 (2020): 648-59. Print.

3 

Plum, Hilary. “Reading in the Conglomerate Era, or, Do Small Presses Even Exist?” Los Angeles Review of Books 24 Oct. 2023. Web. 1 Mar. 2024. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/reading-in-the-conglomerate-era-or-do-small-presses-even-exist.

4 

Sinykin, Dan. “Cormac McCarthy Had a Remarkable Literary Career: It Could Never Happen Now.” The New York Times, 19 June 2023. Web. 1 Mar. 2024. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/19/opinion/cormac-mccarthy-­publishing.html.

5 

Thomas, Bronwen. Literature and Social Media. London: Routledge, 2020. Print.

6 

Wilkins, Kim, Beth Driscoll, and Lisa Fletcher. Genre Worlds: Popular Fiction and Twenty-First-Century Book Culture. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2022. Print.

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